Tag Archives: Religion

How to read at church

An older gentleman literally chased me down in the parking lot this morning to tell me how much he appreciated my reading.

I put my transmission in park and rolled down the window.

“You read so beautifully,” he said, tearing up (I kid you not). “You put the emphasis on the right words, and it means so much to me. Thank you.”

“Thank you so much for telling me,” I said. “I am only an instrument, but it is still nice to hear.”

“Have a good day,” he said.

“You, too,” I said, rolling up my window and pulling away.

I am a reader at my church, and that’s how I started my week. A simple gift — took me three minutes during a 45-minute service — and I made someone’s day (and he made mine!). It wasn’t just the old man either. When I arrived at 7:45 a.m., I was greeted with a cheery chorus of “Monica must be reading today.” (Let’s be clear here: I don’t remember the Sabbath day and keep holy every week; I’m usually only so devoted when I’m scheduled to read, but it’s nice in any case to be greeted warmly.)

I’ve been a reader at this Missouri Synod Lutheran church for seven or eight years, but I didn’t learn how to deliver the Bible readings at this church. I learned at a Catholic cathedral (to which I belonged — and was a reader — for about five years before I, alas, got divorced). Volunteering in nearly any role at a cathedral is serious business, and cathedral readers were trained to do so with proper reverence. Here are a few tips I’ve learned for being the kind of reader at church who gets noticed for the right reasons:

1. It’s not about you.

” … do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.”

~ Matthew 10:19b-20 (RSV)

No matter what the topic, all good speakers know a speech or lecture or performance is more about the material and the audience than the performer, but this is never more true than when one is reading sacred text for an audience of believers. I always say a little prayer before I read at church: “Let me be an instrument.” This helps calm nerves, and reminds me Someone other than me is in charge.

2. Prepare.

Get to church early to practice your reading(s) out loud. (Even better if you know the readings and the Bible version, practice at home the day before.) It’s not enough to simply get the words right (and correctly pronounce names and places); understanding the sentence structure — the subjects, the verbs, the clauses — will help you emphasize correctly. A quick note about your attire: Choose to wear something reverent but bland; you want people listening to your words, not thinking about your fashion choices.

3. Context matters.

In the Lutheran church (mine anyway), readers deliver the first and second readings (usually one of the Old Testament and one from the New Testament), and the pastor always reads the Gospel reading. Even though I’m not speaking it, I always read over the Gospel reading to help me understand why these three readings have been chosen to be delivered together. There’s always some thread that runs through all of them, and understanding that thread helps me understand what point I’m supposed to be getting across. Find out the title of the sermon, too; sometimes there’s a clue there.

4. Take your time.

Walk — do not run — to the altar and the podium. Arrange the microphone if you must. Take a breath. That slight pause you create before beginning the reading gets attention and gives the congregation a moment to prepare to listen.

5. This is not a performance.

Don’t be dramatic. Let the words tell the story. There is no reason to pretend to be the voice of God or to “wail” or to “quiver” or whatever the text describes and, God forbid, don’t act anything out; let the words of the Bible speak for themselves. That’s not to say you can’t vary your speed or volume and pause appropriately; simply do it in a way that calls attention to the words, not you.

Reading at church is important work. Imagine! The words you read have been around for millennia — inspired by God and shared among billions of believers to teach, comfort and inspire. It is a gift to be a part of it.

I believe

Take courage. We walk in the wilderness today and in the Promised Land tomorrow.

~ D.L. Moody

I had a bolt of realization at church a couple of weeks ago not unlike the apostle Paul’s blinding burst of insight on the road to Damascus. Paul writes of the moment as a revelation.

I wasn’t walking on a desert road nor was I blinded but the revelation that came to my mind has colored my thoughts ever since.

I was sitting in the pew silently weeping. Our new pastor was preaching his first sermon in front of our congregation; he was installed with much pomp later that afternoon.

But I wasn’t thinking much about the new pastor whom I’m sure is a fine fellow. I was thinking of our former pastor who died a little over a year ago and whom this new pastor was replacing.

I had just read in the bulletin that the flowers on the altar were placed there in memory of my former pastor. I thought how nice it was to have him present in some small way at the installation of the new pastor, but I also thought of how I missed my former pastor.

This former pastor welcomed me and my Beloved to his church seven years ago. He married us. He confirm my stepson.

I always try to get to know a pastor when I join a church — to know him beyond his weekly sermons. I got to know this pastor over many miles by running with him in the church Walk-R-Run club. I like to know my pastors just in case they have to bury me. I don’t want a stranger officiating at my funeral. I never expected seven years ago that I might outlive my pastor, not just by a few years but by a few decades.

Now, as I was sitting in the pew in front of a new pastor, I thought the only reason to get to know him would be for the funeral familiarity factor. Beyond the weekly services, I don’t need to be confirmed. I don’t need to be married (I hope I’m done with that). I don’t need him for a baptism either. All that’s left in terms of life events is that funeral.

So I was stewing in the juices of grief when the new pastor said something that made me think about eternity.

I’m going to get theological here so I should warn you, I’m not theologian. But I have a theory. A theory about heaven. Or whatever one calls the place you go when you die.

I believe the body is temporary, but the soul is eternal. For me, “eternal” not only means “without end” but also “without beginning.” I don’t think humans have the power to create souls — bodies, sure, but not souls. When a baby is conceived, its soul comes from somewhere. It’s not created by the union of a sperm and an egg; an eternal soul comes from somewhere to be, to exist in the newly created person.

Following me? To follow my argument so far, you have to believe in the soul, that the spirit is separate from the body (though joined with it in life), that it is eternal and that it comes from someplace — let’s call it heaven.

I don’t remember anything about my existence before I was conceived. I don’t remember anything before I was 5, in fact, but certainly nothing about whatever existence I had before being joined with this body.

So why do I think I will remember anything about my current state when my body is dead? I’m beginning to believe I won’t. Wherever my soul was is where my soul returns, completely unaware of how much I hate Cracker Barrel, how much I love to read, how frustrated I am with my wrinkles, how elated I am when I step into an elevator bound for the top floor. All these strong emotions I have in this earthly body will be meaningless when I’m dead. I will no longer have a body. My soul, without all its earthly bonds, will return to eternity without so much as a backward glance.

Don’t get me wrong here. I still believe our earthly lives are important and meaningful, but I just believe they are important and meaningful here on earth, to our fellow men. We can make a difference, do the right thing, pay attention to the details, be remembered fondly here on earth. None of it matters to our souls once our bodies die.

For now, we see indistinctly, as in a mirror, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I will know fully, as I am fully known.

~ 1 Corinthians 13:12

This concept of an eternal soul without memories of its earthly existence jives with my new view of heaven. I don’t think heaven has streets or feasts or happy reunions with loved ones. Without bodies, we don’t need methods of transportation or clocks or milk-and-honey rivers or parents or spouses or children. Beings with bodies — and hands and feet and eyes and stomachs and sexual desires — need those things. Eternal souls do not.

I don’t know what I believe about individuality but I’m not sure we’re even individuals in the eternal plain. This is a sticking point in my mind that I haven’t yet entirely resolved.

The earth and everything in it, the world and its inhabitants, belong to the Lord.

~ Psalm 24:1

This philosophy is both disconcerting and comforting. It’s a little disconcerting to think all the people and things so important to me now will not even be the stuff of memories in eternity. But there’s a certain comfort, too, in believing “this, too, shall pass.” If heaven is perfect and pain-free, then all my sorrows will disappear. But then why would my joys, so often rooted in my body (good tastes, beautiful music, physical elation) stick with me?

My former pastor is not sorry to see his congregation welcome a new pastor. It doesn’t matter who buries me. My body is like the flowers on the altar — beautiful and unique. And fleeting. Every moment matters only for right now.

The best we can hope for in this life is a knothole peek at the shining realities ahead. Yet a glimpse is enough. It’s enough to convince our hearts that whatever sufferings and sorrows currently assail us aren’t worthy of comparison to that which waits over the horizon.

~ Joni Eareckson Tada

Author tells how Bible stories about harlots, seductresses and rape victims are worth reading and understanding

These are Bible stories you’ll rarely hear on Sunday mornings in church — stories of incest, rape, mutilation and seduction.

The Sunday liturgy in Catholic and Lutheran churches I’ve attended abides by a three-year reading cycle that covers most, but not all, of the Bible. A regular church goer will hear some passages in what seems like an over-and-over pattern (Jesus is feeding 5,000 again?), while some sections and books are never read and rarely used as the basis for sermons.

HarlotAuthor Jonathan Kirsch tackles some of those rarely studied stories in “The Harlot by the Side of the Road: Forbidden Tales of the Bible.”

Says Kirsch in his opening: “The stories that are retold here will come as a surprise to many readers precisely because, over the centuries, they have been suppressed by rabbis, priests and ministers uncomfortable with the candor of the biblical storytellers about human conduct, sexual or otherwise.”

If you believe the Bible was written by God’s fingers, you might not appreciate Kirsch’s thoughtful discussions of the origins of the Bible and his occasional treatment of the book as literature rather than the inspired word of God, but I found Kirsch to be respectful even when he was being academic.

Kirsch retells the Bible stories in common English in sort of a “historical fiction” approach alongside an English translation of the Bible, and then he explores possible meanings in historical and contemporary texts. In his analysis are seven stories from the Old Testament, also known as the Hebrew Bible:

  • The story of Lot and his daughters (Genesis 19:1-38).
  • The rape of Dinah (Genesis 34:1-31).
  • Tamar and Judah (Genesis 38:1-26). This is the story on which the title of Kirsch’s book is based.
  • Zipporah and Moses (Exodus 4:24-26).
  • Jephthah and his daughter (Judges 11:1-40).
  • The Levite traveler and his concubine (Judges 19:1-28).
  • The rape of another woman named Tamar by her brother who was also King David’s son Amnon (2 Samuel 13:1-22).

Did you know Lot (the man whose wife was turned to salt when she turned around the witness the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah) had sex with his daughters who bore children by him? Did you know Moses had a wife and son? Have you ever even heard of Jephthah?

After reading Kirsch’s book, I have a new appreciation for all these characters, especially the female ones. If you think the Bible skims over the stories of women, Kirsch’s approach will open your eyes to the possible feminist themes woven throughout the Old Testament.

Don’t miss the appendix in back about “Who Really Wrote the Bible.” It explains a lot about how the Bible came together and some reasons for some of the confusing and sometimes redundant passages.

When I finished “Harlot,” I went back to my bookshelf to find another similar book I found useful in understanding the story of King David, the little shepherd who slayed Goliath, wrote Psalms, committed adultery with Bathsheba and ruled Israel hundreds of years before the birth of Jesus Christ. Turns out Jonathan Kirsch also wrote “King David: The Real Life of the Man Who Ruled Israel,” too.

A quick Google search reveals Kirsch is quite prolific having written books about Moses, Revelations and more. I’ll have to check them out.

 

Handbook may save your soul but probably not your lettuce

Even veterans can use a tune-up on occasion.

This applies to religious veterans, too. I was brought up in a Lutheran family. I was baptized as a baby. Sunday school stories informed my childhood, and confirmation sealed the deal in eighth grade. I have never experienced one of those aha moments like the apostle Paul’s dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus. I am a Christian, and I’ve always been one.

Some of my friends did not have such idyllic religious childhoods; they came to know God as adults, which I’ve learned is quite a different experience than mine.

Sonya Privette-JamesBut both types of Christians in my book club appreciated Sonya Privette-James little book, “The New Members’ Handbook for Christian Believers.” Privette-James’ perspective is more evangelical than say, Martin Luther’s, but her concepts are general enough to expertly inform most new Christians who are just beginning to figure out this weekly worship thing and the necessary components of church membership.

I appreciated Privette-James’ use of many Biblical references in her instructions on all the basics — baptism, communion, prayer, tithing and more — but her handbook’s tone is humorless. It’s a bit like reading instructions for proper use of a refrigerator (imagine what would happen if you set the temperature wrong or store your lettuce in the freezer compartment). So too is “The New Members’ Handbook” only your eternal soul is at stake. Like an instruction manual, all the elements are there but don’t look for personality. Despite what a staid lifelong Lutheran might tell you (Luther’s Small Catechism is devoid of jokes, too), God has a sense of humor and good evangelists can convey it. See Lysa TerKeurst’s work for an appealing mix of Biblical principles delivered with a handful of self-deprecating humor. Is it necessary? No, but it’s nice sometimes.

I read “The New Members’ Handbook” on my Kindle, but as a reference manual, I think I would prefer a printed copy. On the other hand, a friend who read it on Kindle loved it and found it easier to finish that way.

Our book club is going to tackle something much spicier, and perhaps theologically dicier, next month: “The Harlot By the Side of the Road: Forbidden Tales of the Bible” by Jonathan Kirsch.

Oh, to have the confidence of Luther

That Martin Luther was bold. Martin Luther? The German monk who spurred the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century? That Martin Luther wrote Luther’s Small Catechism which succinctly sums up the Lutheran faith with tidy explanations and statements like, “This is most certainly true.”

Lutherans everywhere are in on this joke, but the rest of you are probably still thinking about the civil rights movement and “I have a dream.” No, not that guy. You Minnesotans understand.

Good ol’ Martin Luther crossed my mind twice today. During one of National Public Radio’s updates on the cardinals meeting in Rome to choose a new pope, I wondered how many of them are the “Martin Luther” type — the rebels who nail Ninety-Five Thesis to the front door of the church in public complaint of church practices, specifically the pope’s practices. Probably none. Martin Luther was a special sort, one who comes along every 1,600 years or so.

Then, in church this evening … Wait, let me explain that. We Lutherans go to church on Wednesdays during Lent (the run-up to Easter). Strange, I know. It’s Catholics who give things up for Lent and eat fish. We Lutherans practice a different form of sacrifice.

Anyway, in church tonight we read Luther’s explanation of the Second Article of Faith which ends in “This is most certainly true.” Instantly, I was brought back to eighth grade and chore of memorizing such things. In order to be confirmed, young Lutherans must memorize most of Luther’s Small Catechism, no small feat for a sleep-deprived teenager more interested in video games and the opposite sex than religious books written in the 16th century. This practice of rote memorization has phrases like “This is most certainly true” ringing in our ears for the better part of our lifetimes.

I admire Luther for being so bold. Explaining faith and God’s intentions takes some gumption. How does he know? Well, there’s his years of study and solid backing by the Bible, but even as an educated adult with access to Google’s millions of definitions and translations, I don’t know. Yet, we Lutherans confidently say, “This is most certainly true.”

Really, what can I say “this is most certainly true” about nowadays? All that’s certain is death and taxes. This is most certainly true.

Paper or plastic? I don’t know. Even those re-usable bags are suspect if you don’t actually re-use them.

Paperbacks or ebooks? I’m straddling the chasm between them. I read both.

Can I count on Social Security? Who knows. I’m not even sure the current rally in the stock market is good news or bad news.

Life and faith and the future are all so murky.

This is most certainly true.

Pastor’s finish line

Just five months ago, I met Pastor Gleason for a run around Hampshire, and he mentioned he was seeing a doctor the next week.

“I found blood in my urine,” he said. “But I’m feeling good enough for a run.”

We began, as always, with a short prayer during which he asked for safe passage on the streets. I told him we’d take it easy but to do that wasn’t sacrificing anything for me. This man, at 59, could run 7-minute miles when he wanted to, so sticking to my 11- or 12-minute pace was literally a walk in the park.

Pastor always slowed his pace for me when we ran together once or twice a month as part of the church’s Walk R Run club. Usually, we were joined by walkers so I had him to myself for 40 minutes to chat about running, religion, the news or our families. On that run, I talked about my book, which was about to come out, and he talked about his brother, who had died recently.

After we finished and we were downing bottles of water while I stretched my calves in the parking lot, I wished him luck with the doctor and we parted.

It was our last Walk R Run club outing.

The blood in his urine turned out to be a symptom of kidney cancer. Pastor died yesterday.

I wrote about him last month here when he appeared briefly at church for a baptism. I had hoped it was a good sign, but I could see aggrieved concern in his wife’s eyes.

I will miss him for so many reasons. I enjoyed running with him and hearing about his marathon goals. He also supported my writing; he was a regular commenter on Minnesota Transplant. And he was a good pastor to me.

I will always be grateful to him for welcoming us into his church even though he knew my Beloved and I were “living in sin.” He wasn’t judgmental like that. He married my Beloved and me, and he confirmed my stepson.

He once commented here that his favorite Bible verse was John 8:12:

 “I am the Light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness but will have the light of life.”

If Pastor had penned John’s line, it might have been “run” instead of “walk.” In any case, he was traveling in light.

When I was in fifth grade, another pastor of mine died of cancer. I remember being impressed with the church filled to capacity, and I remember singing the hymn “I Know That My Redeemer Lives.” At 12, I thought it strange to sing such a joyful song at a funeral, but I now realize how appropriate an Easter message was:

He lives and grants me daily breath;
He lives, and I shall conquer death;
He lives my mansion to prepare;
He lives to bring me safely there.

I’ve thought of “I Know My Redeemer Lives” as I mourn Pastor, too. God always protected us runners on the roadway, and I’m confident He prepared safe passage for Pastor Gleason on his final journey.

The story of a wise man and a baby

No matter what else you think about it, a church service is a live performance. Like a lecture, it has a professional speaker. Like a concert, it has music and musicians. Like performance art in a museum, it has burning candles and architecture. Like sports, it has “us” and “them.” Like theater, it has a hero and a villain.

A Christian church service even has food, if you count a swallow of wine and a wafer as food.

If nothing else, these things supply reason for subsidizing the offering plate. Of course, I believe contributing to a church is more than paying for a ticket, but at the bare minimum, the players in the performance that is a worship service deserve some recompense.

Today, my church service had a bonus buy.

I witnessed a moment of humanity.

My pastor, who is battling cancer and has been absent from services for weeks, officiated at a baby’s baptism this morning. I have missed him, and I’m among many members praying furiously for his return to good health. It was so good to see him, pale and thin perhaps, but upright. A fellow pastor officiated at the rest of service, but Pastor was performing the baptism.

As he began the rite, he said, as he always says at a baptism and the beginning of any service, “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

Only his voice caught on the word, “Father.”

I don’t know what crossed his mind at that moment, but what crossed mine was, “Oh, joy! He is here. He is speaking. He is doing what he was ordained to do — welcoming another child into the Lutheran fold. And I am so grateful to be here to witness it.”

A moment later, another phrase I have heard him utter probably a thousand times had new meaning coming from his lips:

“Whoever believes in Him shall not perish.”

Those moments of being there, of being genuinely present, of witnessing the miracles of health and good work and faith were worth the price of admission.